In his legacy years chief minister Okram Ibobi can either create an unchallenged legacy or fade into mediocrity and public oblivion once out of office
By Pradip Phanjoubam
It is not too infrequent that we hear of President of the United States of America, Barak Obama, being in his legacy years. It is his second term in the office, the occupant of which is considered the most powerful man in the world. It is also an office which cannot have an occupant extend beyond two terms, each term lasting four years. In other words, this will be the last term Obama can be President of America. This being what it is, he does not have to worry of so many things politicians normally are bogged down with, most importantly, re-election, therefore the need to cater to demands of petty constituencies of his electorate, often sectarian in nature. He would therefore also be much more free to be himself and to rise above mundane pressures and exigencies of everyday politics. Knowing in the technical sense he cannot be a loser, for he no longer has an election to contest, he would be liberated in thought and spirit to seek objectives which can leave permanent policy legacies for his country, and his own name written in permanent ink in the annals of his country’s history. Quite obviously, Obama is aware of this predicament, and many well wishers and observers around the world have the confidence in him that he will be able to live up to this onerous challenge of history, not just of his country, but of the entire world, for American policies do have profound impacts on the fate of the whole world.
Though on a much smaller scale and canvas, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi’s predicament is similar. He has been in the most powerful office of the state for three terms of five years each now. He has received the mandate of the electorate of the people of the state in three successive elections to lead them, and the confidence of the house of elected MLAs for an equal number of years. It is another matter what means he used to garner himself these mandates, but the fact that matters in the end is, he received them unambiguously. Fortune has been kind to him all along. Beginning from the middle of his first term, the toughened Anti-Defection Law made it practically impossible for political horse-trading in which supports of legislators were up for auction, and governments were made and brought down depending on who commanded the MLA auction market. Before this law came about, few or no chief ministers, especially in small states like Manipur, managed to hold out a full term. Most Chief Ministers therefore ended up spending much of their times, resources and energy, minding and culturing the loyalties of legislators, leaving little time for the serious business of governance. The Anti-Defection Law saved Ibobi of this worry, and obviously this would have strengthened his hands considerably. No doubt he would have had to have political artistry to be able to stay in office for so many years even with this law, but the moot question is, can he, or should he do more now. Should his achievement be just about his ability to have lasted out three terms, and maybe more, for the Indian constitution does not restrict the number of terms the Chief Minister or the Prime Minister can be in office, unlike in the US. We would be disappointed if Ibobi thinks such an ambition is enough.
In very many ways, this third term can be considered Ibobi’s legacy term. He is in his mid 60s now and even if he were to return another term when he is closing in on the septuagenarian years, he would probably lack the energy to push policy visions with any vigour. Like Obama, he should also be able to free himself from the pressures of petty politics and politicking and instead be on a path of pursuing dreams and visions – not just his, but of the entire state. He should be thinking in terms of leaving a permanent mark for himself in the history of the place too, and he is in a position to do so. He could for instance, leave Manipur with better road connectivity. Increase the mileage of roads in the state, connecting all population centres, but equally important, improve the quality of roads all over. We are sure he does not need any more money for himself now, so he could end the contractor-engineer-politician nexus which have left this category of citizenry inordinately rich, but the roads and other public infrastructures in abysmal conditions. Even the small stretch of reinforced concrete road around the base of the only narrow flyover in Imphal today is beginning to wash away. The lifespan of such roads is generally considered to be at least 50 years, why then do they disintegrate much faster in Manipur?
Ibobi has done well to widen many Imphal roads, and he must now not abandon this project. Imphal city will become unliveable in a decade or so if nothing is done to its roads to be able to handle the ever increasing traffic volume. In these times, when the zeitgeist is talks of increasing tourism potential, it is also very much essential for Imphal and district headquarters townships to be given major overhauls. Surely those in the government, and town planners would have read of visitors after visitors, both foreign and domestic, remarking Imphal is a city of ugly buildings and dusty roads, though it could have been one of the prettiest in the entire country. The cue should have been to initiate a fresh effort to overhaul and beautify the city. It would not be too far off the mark to even say private initiatives such as “Blooming Manipur” are doing more in this regard.
It would be pertinent here to recall, most of the best planned cities in the world and the country are usually synonymous with the names of the architects and architectural firms which designed them. Lutyens’ Delhi, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh etc. Ibobi could think of a grand plan like these to reinvent Imphal and other townships. Instead look at how even his own hometown Thoubal is coming up, though visibly a lot of public money has been diverted towards its development. Our planners have not grown out of the box-shop, pan-dukan mentality in this age of plush malls, arcades and multiplexes. Even if it was not to be as grand as these, at least some distinctive signatures of the township being different and state-of-art, giving it the confidence of preparedness for the future, could and should have been there. Sadly, there is none of these.
In this term, Ibobi should ensure Manipur does not fall behind in power availability. He should even think of bringing this portfolio under him as a personal challenge. Ten years of extreme power shortage the state has been living with would have killed off many burgeoning entrepreneurial spirits, besides making everyday life a struggle for the entire citizenry. Night life in Imphal and other townships, is virtually dead too today, partly because of the legacy of prolonged period of night curfews during the 1980s and 1990s, but mostly because unlike any other modern cities, nights are virtually pitch-dark in Imphal and other towns in the state. This first of all means shorter working hours, and equally important less time and leisure hours for relaxed evenings after a hard day’s work. It also means a virtual death knell for a dream of a vibrant tourism industry too.
Another great landmark for Ibobi would be, as this column spelled out in the last edition, if his government manages to have the Kangla recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. It would be a pride for the state to think a part of it owns historical legacy is also what the world considers valuable and its own heritage. Such a status would be a boon for the upkeep of the Kangla for there would be more funds inflow for the purpose, and a booster for tourism in the state. This is especially after the recent development in which the Battle of Imphal and Kohima taken together, was voted in Britain as Britain’s most hard-fought and important victory in all its history. Ibobi ‘s government should have already constituted a committee to chalk out plans to most effectively campaign for the recognition by now.
Often, government after governments have blamed insurgency as the dampener of its initiatives. This explanation when it persists for decades, cannot but be described as a diversionary tactics to cover non-performance and lack of vision. Insurgency in any case is unlikely to disappear overnight, so it is the responsibility of a tough leader to get things done despite insurgency. Ibobi in his legacy years should have this toughness to push dreams and visions. He now has everything to gain, provided he has the will, but not very much to lose even if he falls short of the goal of these visions. He would have paved the way for future governments and raised the bars of their standards of performances at least, even if the destinations he set are not reached during his time. He must have the right team to spell out these dreams and visions for him, and then pursue them relentless now. Only such achievements will make the difference between a great and rich legacy he leaves behind and an ordinary nondescript one. It will also decide whether he has his name in gold letters in the history of the place.